But I digress. I checked in with the park website and lo and behold, my luck was still there. My BAD luck I mean. The lava has shifted it's flow pattern as lava does, and it's not flowing into the ocean right now. It's pretty much all underground except for some flow areas that are weeping out of the lava tubes and creeping down the hill....but no red-hot rivers of lava to be found. RATS!!!! If I wanted to see anything other than miles (and miles, and miles) of hardened lava, I needed to do it from the air. I considered an airplane tour and a helicopter tour. Finally I settled on a helo tour, however it required me to get over to Hilo by 12:15 for a 1pm 50 minute flight. No one else in our group was really interested in doing the helo flight (or spending the $ to do it, though in all honesty it was quite reasonable). But nobody had any problem with us all driving up and over Saddle Road (between Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau volcanos) and down into Hilo. The drive was around 95 miles, and in years past Saddle Road was SO horrible that you weren't allowed to take rental cars on it. However in recent years they have resurfaced most of the bad areas, and totally re-routed the other bad spots. So now the drive took about 2 and a half hours, and was quite scenic too!
The tour company was called "Blue Hawaiian Helicopters" and they are the only company who flies helo's on ALL the islands. I got a real good price booking online too! (plus you get a free T shirt AND a complimentary "Visions of Hawaii" dvd, which is shot in full HD with footage from their tours on all the islands....of a BEST OF HAWAII dvd). I was pretty excited about the trip as I've never been on a helicopter before, AND I will FINALLY see some lava!!!!
It's a decent size volcano cone, and the HOT spot of the moment is obvious. Thru the escaping steam and gas (a lot of sulpher dioxide which I'm told when mixed with seawater creates an airborne sulfuric acid, and is VERY BAD for those in it's path who need to breath). If you blow up this picture (click on it) you can see a bunch of the scientific equipment on the lip just about in the middle of the picture.
If you click on this picture and blow it up more, you can see a red spot thru the steam in the lower left area...this is the boiling lava caldera of the Pu'u O vent (at this exact moment...Zack says things change here fast...he flies over it many times a day and it can change from trip to trip). There were moments in the flight when suddenly the gas/steam would blow away and all of a sudden you see clear as day the huge pool of red molten lava. But before I could snap a picture (which was only do'able when MY side of the helo was facing the vent), it would shift back and cover it up again. I snapped this shot just as it was being 're-covered' from a clear view. Suffice to say, it was AWESOME (you'll just have to trust me). And it's at moments like that (when I'm staring down into a red-hot pool of molten lava) that I ponder what noise I would make if the helicopter broke.
Anyway....after many swoops over the vent for both sides of the helo, Zack then took us over the 'skylights', which are holes in the top of a lava tube...windows if you will. The lava tubes are how the lava travels underground, and the island is FULL of them. I've walked inside a BIG one a few years back, it's quite famous. It's called the "Thurston Lava Tube". If you are ever on the BI, I"d recommend it as part of your Volcano's Natnional Park tour. Just bring a flashlight...funny how dark it can be inside a BLACK tunnel.
After many passes over two different skylights in the area, he then took us to the ONLY house remaining of all the hundreds of homes that USED to be in the big subdivision called Royal Gardens (which was totally wiped out during the same flows that covered the black sand beach). The man still lives there in his house, and he's quite famous. The locals call him "Lava Jack". As the HUGE lava flow was heading down the mountain many years back burning home after home into vapors and covering the beautiful jungle with lava, it suddenly parted and went around a small blob of land like some kind of miracle. None of the homes in the entire area were insured (as you can't get insurance if you're in a high-risk lava zone, which is ALL of the southern Big Island) so it was a total loss for everybody concerned. It's hard to comprehend losing EVERYTHING you own AND all your money.
After we leave Jacks area we fly down to the coast (not very far) where the lava USED to flow into the ocean. As we start flying back towards Hilo along the coast, we pass a portion of the Royal Gardens subdivision where people have finally been allowed to rebuild. However you are rebuilding on TOP of the lava flow, and will still have NO insurance, and there also will never (in their lifetimes) be power or water. The hardy residents have bulldozed simple roads on top of the lava and someone must have come out and surveyed out the land plots and away they built. Zack said that when your home is taken by the volcano, YOU are still liable to pay the property taxes on YOUR property, even though it's buried under lava. And you now have two choices: pay the property tax on your land (that in some cases will not be habitable in your lifetime) or NOT pay, and then your plot of land is turned back over to the state. These people apparently kept paying their taxes and even though it took about 20 years or so, were FINALLY were allowed to rebuild.
After that we headed up the coast and finally back over Hilo, and the last views we saw were some nice waterfalls and pools on a river that runs right thru Hilo. It was pretty but I didn't get any great shots post-worthy. I took a LOT of pics during the tour, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And after, it turns out they do an HD recording of the ENTIRE FLIGHT. There are 3 cameras underneath the helo, and one inside looking back at us passengers! It includes all the pilots narrations and any questions we asked (we each had a microphone/switch in our lap, and anytime we wanted to talk we waited for a quiet moment and pushed the switch and talked....the entire complement is on the intercom). And for the paltry sum of $24 I bought a copy of the tour! Of course we watched it back at the timeshare and I didn't really even need to narrate much as Zack was doing that the entire time. The only downside was the audio portion of the intercom was rather crackly over-driven...but other than that they all got to go on the tour with me. The only downside was that of the 4 cameras, the pilot has to switch which camera is actually recording. Usually he did a good job and as he was talking about something he'd switch the system to that camera (and occasionally to the view of us as we were asking questions). But as we flew along this entire section of the rebuilt houses he forgot to switch the view, so the camera was looking straight ahead as the flew along the coast.
After the tour we had lunch at a local cafe, and then proceeded back up Saddle Road. Hilo was totally buried in clouds as is typical of the east side of the island, but as we climb up into the saddle area (between the 2 GINORMOUS volcanoes) we drive right into the sun. Both Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau are shield volcanoes, meaning their cones are a very mild climb angle and they are spread out over an incredible amount of land. Mauna Loa is technically the highest mountain on the planet, higher than Mt Everest. The seafloor around the Big Island is at 18,000 feet. The hot-spot in the earth's crust that created the islands spewed lava from the bottom and created island after island, starting with Kauai (the farthest north island) and ending with the Big Island. The summit of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau are both over 13,000 feet...I think ML is around 13,700 and MK is just about 25 or so feet shorter. Add that to the 18,000 feet that they rise off the seafloor and they are both over 31,000 feet tall.
This is Mauna Loa rising up above Saddle road. Behind us is Mauna Keau. You can see how slight the climb angle is of this MASSIVE mountain of lava. And you get a small sense of how HUGE this island is, that these two gigantic volcano's pretty much made up most of the island. The climb is so gentle as you descend thru the clouds that you have no idea how much mountain is above you (as you almost NEVER see the summits from below the perpetual cloud layer). We are probably at about 8000 feet where this photo was taken.
Notice that it is shaped very differently from it's big sister though. MK is world-famous for the observatories on it's summit. Our last trip to the island my brother in law John and I took a stargazing tour where they picked us up in Kona and drove us to the tippy-top for sunset. We got to stand on an overlook and wave our arms, casting the largest shadows we will most likely ever cast. You could clearly see your HUGE arm waving on top of the clouds miles and miles away, stretching into forever. As the sun set it got cold quite quickly, and we all jumped into the van and he drove us down to about 9000 feet (just above the clouds) where he setup an amazing 9" reflecting telescope, and then proceeded to amaze us with the stellar sights (and hot chocolate and snacks too). If you are ever in the Big Island I'd highly recommend this tour...it was fabulous! After the tour he drops everybody off at their respective pick-up-points (ours was in Kona, just a short drive from the timeshare). If you click on this picture, you might be able to see a tiny bit of the road as it crosses just to the right of the middle of the pic..in a small depression with the highest spot to it's left. You can't quite see the multiple observatories from this angle, but there are times as you drive the Saddle Road you can see sunlight glinting off the shiny HUGE domes. Mauna Keau is reputed to be one of the best stargazing spots in the world, as it's above something like 95% of the moisture and such that is in the air, and also as the Big Island has very strict 'light' rules (as in: no upward emanating light is allowed...all streetlights must have hoods on them, stuff like that). So there is almost NO light pollution up there.
I don't have any further pictures worthy of posting from this trip. We were flying out the next morning (Saturday) and this was pretty much the final hurrah. As always I'll surely miss Kona and the Big Island. This trip was quite relaxing as we didn't spend TOO much time behind the windshield, or running ourselves ragged doing thing after thing. Mostly we just enjoyed being in Hawaii again, wearing shorts, T-shirts and flip flops all the time. And eating some tasty foods and lots of tasty beers. All in all, not a bad vacation. John was a real trooper with his newly broken arm, and we were very glad he was able to come after all. I know he was quite sad that it's actually QUITE hard to do dollar-bill origami with only one hand (one of our past-times we enjoy when sitting around drinking beer, eating poke and other snacks and just chilling at the timeshare on the lani). I however managed to mostly decode the very difficult to understand instructions and made a PAIR of flip-flops (using 1 dollar bills). John bought the book of instructions years ago on our first trip here, and he brings it each time. I also made some kind of a 'fat star' thing. Years back I made a Hawaiian shirt, a gecko and a turtle. Jeannie keeps them all in her secretary on display, reminding us of the fun times we had together.
OK...this got long (imagine THAT!)...hope everybody has their Christmas shopping done and can sit back and ENJOY the holiday season!
Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas in Hawaiian) to you all!